How the market is changing?
For the first time in years, Art Basel is changing the layout of its galleries. The minutiae of gallery positioning in the exhibition centre are probably the least interesting aspect of the art fair, or, indeed, anything. What is interesting, however, is that it is the physical confirmation of a change in collecting that is evident across the entire art market.
The rearrangement is taking place so that there is a special focus on works of art from 1900 to 1970. Or to put that another way, the fair is doing everything it can to ensure that exemplary pieces of Modern art are seen together and are seen in a context of their own. It is confirmation of the strength of this particular collecting area, not that confirmation was necessary following Christie’s billion-dollar week of auctions in New York in May, that was driven precisely by their one-off auction, Looking Forward to the Past. This sale gathered together works in defiance of regular auction categories, chosen for their quality and that they were produced in the 20th century. It was a testament to the power of this period to the eyes of current collectors. It was not defined by material or artist but by sensibility.
There are certain practical reasons for this growth and, more particularly, the apparent marketing behind this area: there are few examples of really fine works from the Impressionist period that are not either in museums or locked up in private collections, so both the fairs and the auction houses need to move taste on from this period. The current vogue for Modern works appeals to an aesthetic that is excited by the art-historical developments of this time, while being far enough away from it not to be put off. It makes sense to expand the category under inspection to include rogue artists who have the wind of success behind them, such as Francis Bacon or Henry Moore, who might previously have been thought of as being housed within the category of Modern British artists.
If it seems as though this is the product of a deliberate marketing ploy that is only part of the story. There is certainly a reassuring aspect to this. It suggests that the movement of the market and the predominant collecting style might be driven by money and investment opportunities, but it also suggests a more sophisticated aesthetic approach to building that collection. The people who are buying these works are not being confined by the narrow diktats of “deep collections” but investing in what they love, which is surely one of the better places to begin a collection.
What to see: Agnes Martin and Barbara Hepworth
While the headline-grabbing works of art that have pushed the art market to new heights over the past few weeks have been the bold works of men, Tate is presenting an alternative approach to Modern art with two art shows this summer. Both exhibitions offer a quieter, softer, version of how to make art in the Modern world. They show artists whose strength came from nuance and detail rather than loud, singular statements. In both cases they are major retrospectives of work by women.
Agnes Martin at Tate Modern is open until 11 October. Martin (1912–2004) is famous for her grids and her soft lines in blues, pinks and yellows. In many ways she was a reluctant artist. She distrusted the element of personal promotion that appeared to be necessary to “make it” in New York, even, in 1967, fleeing the city altogether and heading to New Mexico. She reappeared, out of the blue, in 1974 at Pace gallery asking if they wanted to show her work. She strove to avoid being confined by criticism. She even cancelled a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1980 because they were preparing a catalogue. For Martin, right up until her death at the age of 92, the painting was what mattered.
Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), the most famous British woman artist of her generation, is being shown in the first major retrospective of her work for 50 years at Tate Britain, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, 24 June–25 October.
It is an opportunity to see how one of Britain’s great abstract artists tackled the problems of sculpture incorporating the more avant-garde ideas of Europe into a British taste. Hepworth’s dignified and commanding work, influenced by her marriage to Ben Nicholson, shows a refinement and commitment to abstraction and minimalism. It will be fascinating to see how it holds up in the current climate of big statements.
What both these shows offer is an alternative to attention-seeking work by some of the artists’ colleagues, a serious and cerebral display of what art can be, and confirmation of the breadth that art can enjoy.
Art Market: Peter Doig
Peter Doig’s reputation has, according to the market, escalated at a dizzying speed. In 2002 his painting Swamped sold for £322,000 or $410,000. Last month the same work sold at auction for $25,925,000. That is an increase in value at a compound interest of 36.7% based on price paid inclusive of all fees and not accounting for inflation. Compare this with the increase in value of Picasso’s Femme d’Algers (Version ‘O’) which made all the headlines for it’s record-breaking sale value of $179,365,000. This Picasso last sold in 1997 at a value of $31,900,000. That is an increase in value at a compound interest of 10.97%. So why is it that Peter Doig is the artist who is outpacing a booming art market?
There are, of course, a variety of reasons but before we get on to those it’s worth taking a look at the very top of the art market where the records are made and broken. The Economist recently published a chart that showed all the world record prices for art sold at auction by year. There’s been a dramatic increase in the frequency of when world records are made and re-made over the past 30 years. As tulip fever grips the art market, there appears to be a significant number of bidders willing to out do one another to hold the world’s most expensive work of art. But within this clump of extraordinary prices something interesting happens when you adjust it for inflation. From the 1980s onwards all the records, when adjusted, are around the $70-80 million mark in today’s terms. Though the market appears to be dealing in ever more valuable works of art, in real terms it’s not quite standing still but nor, at the very top, is it sprinting that far ahead.
Against this background, the performance of Swamped looks even more impressive. Doig’s work fits in well with current taste. There’s nothing too controversial about his choice of imagery. His style is figurative and tasteful with enough ambiguity about it to suggest something beyond merely what you see. There is nothing radical about it except for the absence of radicalism; it is accessible. Furthermore it was given the golden imprimatur of Tate with their retrospective of his work in 2008 at Tate Britain (Gerhard Richter underwent a similar upturn in prices when Tate Modern showed an exhibition dedicated to his work in 2011). His work has the support of certain big collectors [such as Francois Pinault] so it can be guaranteed before auctions without too much difficulty allowing the houses to get behind his work and present it as The Next Big Thing. It is a strategy that has paid off handsomely and while there might be other candidates for that title it will be interesting to see who holds it next.
Mid-century artists with an interest in breaking down the barriers of traditional art had a particular zeal for practising in modes that might more usually be thought of as applied art such as jewellery or tapestry. Yet as Grayson Perry has just unveiled a house hung with his tapestries now is a good time to reconsider what were once considered the most exquisite and extravagant form of art.
Some of the great names of 20th century art such as Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder and Marc Chagall all worked on tapestries, picking up on a tradition that includes Raphael and Boucher. Picasso worked on one of the great commissions of 20th-century weaving for the Rockefellers that still hangs in their country estate, Kykuit. In the United Kingdom, the tradition of contemporary tapestry was pioneered by studios such as Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh who have commissioned artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper and David Hockney to create designs for tapestries. Indeed, John Piper has produced some of the finest tapestries from this period: think of his work in the Grocer’s Hall.
There is some confusion about where tapestries might sit in a collection. The woven form might appear to have no place hanging on a wall. Yet the craftsmanship and the innovation required to handle an image through thread suggest a sophistication on a par with painting. Surely tapestries deserve the same respect and another look? After all, the work of the artist in a tapestry is just as involved as their work in a printed edition and it can be purchased for a fraction of the cost. Consider Elisabeth Frink’s Reclining Horse which sold in 2010 for £2,280. If it is possible to own a piece of an artist’s vision for that sort of price then perhaps now really is the time to pay attention to the woven image.